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Authorities Under Pressure To Sack Armenia’s Top Judicial Official


Armenia - Gagik Jahangirian, the acting head of the Supreme Judicial Council, speaks in the National Assembly, September 14, 2021.

Armenian authorities faced on Tuesday growing calls to sack and prosecute the acting head of the country’s judicial watchdog accused of blackmailing his predecessor at odds with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian.

The Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) remained reluctant, however, to take any action against Gagik Jahangirian, who has headed the state body overseeing Armenian courts for the past 14 months.

Ruben Vartazarian, who was controversially suspended as SJC chairman in April 2021, publicized on Monday a secretly recorded audio of his dinner meeting with Jahangirian which he said took place in February 2021.

Jahangirian, who has not disputed the authenticity of the recording, can be heard seemingly warning Vartazarian to resign or face criminal charges. The latter was accused by Pashinian’s political allies of encouraging courts to free arrested opposition figures.

Vartazarian did not heed the warning. The other members of the SJC suspended him in April 2021 immediately after he was charged with obstruction of justice. He rejects the accusation, saying that it was part of government efforts to replace him by Jahangirian and gain control over the judiciary.

The SJC nominates Armenian judges, monitors their work and can take disciplinary action or dismiss them altogether.

Armenia -- Ruben Vartazarian, head of the Supreme Judicial Council, holds a news conference in Yerevan, September 4, 2019.
Armenia -- Ruben Vartazarian, head of the Supreme Judicial Council, holds a news conference in Yerevan, September 4, 2019.

The release of the audio caused uproar, with opposition groups and civic activists describing it as clear evidence of political orders executed by Jahangirian and his illegal interference in the work of law-enforcement bodies.

One of those activists, Daniel Ioannisian, submitted a relevant “crime report” to Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General. The office swiftly instructed another law-enforcement agency to conduct an inquiry.

“It is absolutely unacceptable for an individual carrying out such deeds or making such a confession … to continue to serve as head of the Supreme Judicial Council,” Ioannisian told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service.

The SJC discussed the scandal at a meeting held on Tuesday. One of its members, Grigor Bekmezian, said that neither he nor any of his colleagues demanded disciplinary proceedings against Jahangirian.

“Mr. Jahangirian gave us clarifications and explanations,” Bekmezian told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service. “We are satisfied with what we have at this point. In order to have a full picture, we need a full audio [of the February 2021 meeting with Vartazarian.]”

Armenia - Parents of soldiers killed in the 2020 war with Azerbaijan protest outside the Supreme Judicial Council building, Yerevan, May 26, 2022.
Armenia - Parents of soldiers killed in the 2020 war with Azerbaijan protest outside the Supreme Judicial Council building, Yerevan, May 26, 2022.

Bekmezian did not deny reports that the SJC has decided instead to formally remove Vartazarian from the judicial watchdog over his comments made in a recent newspaper interview.

In the publicized recording, Jahangirian also says that one of his key motives is to prevent former President Robert Kocharian from returning to power.

Jahangirian was controversially arrested and jailed in 2008 during the final weeks of Kocharian’s decade-long presidency. He served as a deputy prosecutor-general at the time. Just days before the arrest, he voiced support for former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, the main opposition candidate in a 2008 presidential election.

The main opposition Hayastan alliance, of which Kocharian is the top leader, seized upon Jahangirian’s admission, saying that it calls into question the legitimacy of the June 2021 parliamentary elections won by Pashinian’s party.

Armenia - Andrea Wiktorin, head of the EU Delegation in Armenia, speaks at a conference on judicial reforms in Yerevan, June 8, 2022.
Armenia - Andrea Wiktorin, head of the EU Delegation in Armenia, speaks at a conference on judicial reforms in Yerevan, June 8, 2022.

In a separate statement, Hayastan urged the U.S. and European Union ambassadors to Armenia to “express your position on the publicized recording.” It also challenged them to state whether they still support the Pashinian government’s “judicial reforms” reportedly coordinated with Jahangirian.

Opposition groups, lawyers and some judges have accused the government of seeking to increase its influence on courts under the guise of those reforms. Pashinian and his political allies say they are on the contrary increasing judicial independence.

Lawmakers representing the ruling Civil Contract party declined to comment on Tuesday on the implications of Jahangirian’s secretly recorded statements.

The party’s parliamentary group installed Jahangirian as a member of the SJC in January 2021.

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